About Poetry: English Prosody Plus: Selected Literary Terms

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About Poetry: English Prosody

Plus: Selected Literary Terms  

Adapted from the Web page of Karen Steffen Chung, Ph.D.

        The main feature that distinguishes poetry from other written genres is succinctness [marked by compact precise expression without wasted words], a tight structure and higher concentration of content—crowded into fewer words— than one usually finds in ordinary prose.

       Poetry can be analyzed as to its form and its content. Ideally, the two should reflect and reinforce each other in expressing the message of the poem.


       Number of lines: The number of lines may be a clue that a poem belongs to a special verse form, for example, a sonnet (see below) composed usually of fourteen lines or a limerick, which normally has five lines. A poem or stanza with one line is called a monostich, one with two lines is a couplet; with three, tercet or triplet; four, quatrain; five, cinquain; six, hexastich; seven, heptastich; eight, octave. Also note the number of stanzas.

        Meter: English has stressed and unstressed syllables. English is considered a stress-timed language, unlike French, which is a syllable-timed language. In poetry, stressed and unstressed syllables are often put together in specific patterns. In poetry these patterns are called meter, which means “measure.” The meters that one finds in poetry are the same ones that people use in everyday speech. The main difference is that in speech these patterns tend to occur spontaneously and without any special order; in poetry they are usually carefully chosen and arranged.

        Here are the most common meters that one finds in English poetry.  / represents a stressed, long syllable; stands for an unstressed, short syllable (not to be confused with “long” and “short” vowels), also called a mora (pl. morae). [Main Entry: mo·ra

Pronunciation: 'mOr-&, 'mor-
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural mo·rae /'mOr-(")E, 'mor-, -"I/; or mo·ras
Etymology: Latin, delay; akin to Old Irish maraid it lasts
: the minimal unit of measure in quantitative verse equivalent to the time of an average short syllable].

The first word of each meter below (e.g. “iambic”) is the adjective form; the one in parentheses is the noun form.

iambic (iamb; L. iambus, Gk iambos; a pre-Hellenic word)                               。/ 。/ 。/ 。/

trochaic (trochee; Gk. trochaios “running”)                                                       /。 /。 /。 /。

dactylic (dactyl; Gk. daktylos “finger” with one long, two short joints)            /。。 /。。 /。。 /。。

anapestic (anapest; Gk. ana “back” + paiein “to strike,” i.e., a reversed dactyl)   。。/ 。。/ 。。/ 。。/

        A fifth kind of meter is called spondaic (spondee; Gk sponde “solemn libation,” which was accompanied by a solemn melody) and consists of two consecutive long, stressed syllables: //; and a sixth is called pyrrhic (from a word for an ancient Greek war dance); this is a metrical foot having two short or unaccented syllables. There are other meters, but these are mostly from Greek and Latin poetry (the preceding six are also found in Greek and Latin poetry) and are not very applicable to English poetry.

         Often the same rhythm will not be used throughout a whole poem, or even a whole line; there may be an extra beat here, one omitted there; or the meter may simply change. Poets often seem to establish a regular pattern, but then put in something “unexpected” to startle the reader, or to achieve some special effect.

        You can divide the rhythms above into parts. Circle each group of symbols containing just one long, stressed syllable / in each example above. You will find that each line has four such groups. Each one of these groups is called a foot, and counting the number of feet is one way of determining the length of a line of poetry. Here are the literary terms for each line length as regards number of feet: one foot: monometer; two feet: dimeter; three feet, trimeter; four feet, tetrameter; five feet, pentameter; six feet, hexameter; seven feet, heptameter.

        caesura: a caesura is simply a pause. Absence of sound is also an important element of poetry. One must make sure to insert caesuras where they are called for. Not all caesuras are of the same length; some are quite long; others are very short. Normally there is a fairly long caesura at the end of every line of poetry. There is usually also a very short caesura after every “foot.”

        punctuation and capitalization: An important thing to remember is that almost any kind of punctuation one sees in a poem tends to signal a pause or caesura. Some poets use very conventional punctuation; some use none at all. Some follow their own special rules in the use of punctuation, e.g., e. e. cummings is also noted for seldom using capital letters in his poetry. Follow these links for instructions on:

Scansion (1); How to Scan a Poem (2); Rhythm, Meter, and Scansion Made Easy (3); How to read a poem (4; pdf file)

This will help you uncover the poem's meaning by yourself:
Questions to Ask of Any Poem

An analysis of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" for form and content

        Rhyme (rime):

        Rhyme is the effect created by matching sounds at the end of words. Ordinarily this includes the last accented vowel and the sounds that follow it, but not the sound of the preceding consonant(s).

        Masculine rhyme falls on one syllable: fat, cat; repair, affair. Feminine or double rhyme includes two syllables, of which only the first is stressed: better, setter; pleasure, treasure. Triple rhyme, often reserved for light verse and doggerel, involves three syllables: practical, tactical.

        There are different kinds of rhyme: exact rhyme (perfect, full, true, complete, whole), which repeats end sounds precisely; slant rhyme (half, approximate, imperfect, near, off, oblique) provides an approximation of the sound: cat, cot; hope, cup; defeated, impeded. Identical rhyme repeats the entire sound, including the initial consonant, sometimes (as in rime riche) with two different meanings and/or spellings, e.g. two, too. Eye rhyme looks as though it should rhyme, but does not, e.g. great, meat; proved, loved. Apocopated rhyme pairs a masculine and feminine ending, rhyming on the stress: cope, hopeless; kind, finder. In mosaic rhyme, two words rhyme with one, or two with two: master, passed her; chorus, before us; went in, sent in.

        Most rhyme occurs at the end of the line and is called terminal rhyme or end-rhyme. Initial rhyme comes at the beginning of a line, and is sometimes combined with end- rhyme. Internal rhyme occurs within one or more lines. Crossed or interlaced rhyme combines internal and end rhyme to give a long-line couplet the effect of a short-line quatrain. Enclosed rhyme envelopes a couplet with rhyming lines in the pattern abba. In interlocking rhyme a word unrhymed in a first stanza is linked with words rhymed in the next to create a continuing pattern, e.g. aba bcb cdc.

        The functions of rhyme are essentially four: pleasurable, mnemonic, structural, and rhetorical. Like meter and figurative language, rhyme provides a pleasure derived from fulfillment of a basic human desire to see similarity in dissimilarity, likeness with a difference. As a mnemonic aid, it couples lines and thoughts, imprinting poems and passages on the mind in a manner that assists later recovery. As a structural device, it helps to define line ends and establishes the patterns of couplet, quatrain, stanza, ballad, sonnet, and other poetic units and forms. As a rhetorical device, it helps the poet to shape the poem and the reader to understand it. Because rhyme links sound, it also links thought, pulling the reader's mind back from the new word to the word that preceded it.

        The effect of rhyme in a poem depends to a large extent on its association with meter. Rhymes gain emphasis in sound and rhetoric when they are heavily stressed. Rhyme is frequent in the poetry of many but not all languages. It is rare in Greek, Latin, and Old English, though it has been common in English since the 14th century. By a more extended definition it can cover the sound patterns of the poetry of all languages and periods, and may include any sound echo, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, and repetition (definitions below).

        A few verse forms:

sonnet (It. from L. sonus “sound”): This is a special verse form with 14 lines, usually iambic pentameter in English. There are two main kinds of sonnet, Italian or Petrarchan and Shakespearean or English. An Italian sonnet is composed of an octave, i.e. an eight-line verse, rhyming abbaabba, and a sestet or six-line verse, rhyming cdecde or cdcdcd, or in some variant pattern, but with no concluding couplet (2-line verse). A Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains (four-line verses) and rhymes abab cdcd efef gg. how to write a sonnet

blank verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter.

free verse: Poetry that is free of traditional rhyme, metrical, stanza patterns.

Heroic couplet: Lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme in pairs (aa, bb, cc).

doggerel: Silly, trivial poetry. A humorous poem may belong to a set form. For example, it may be a limerick. A limerick has an aabba rhyme scheme; the first two and last rhymes are trimeter; the third and fourth, dimeter. It is usually dactylic.

triolet: A French verse form with this rhyme scheme: A B a - Rhymes with 1st line. A - Identical to 1st line. a - Rhymes with 1st line. b - Rhymes with 2nd line. A - Identical to 1st line. B - Identical to 2nd line. how to write a triolet (with links on the ballad, sonnet, villanelle) audio file on the triolet form

Spenserian stanza: A nine-line stanza with an ababbcbcC rhyme scheme; the capital "C" means the last verse is an Alexandrine, which has six feet instead of five, i.e. it is a hexameter instead of a pentameter.


         When reading a poem, one should try to get to its intended message, what the poet is trying to communicate in this poem; this may be quite different from the apparent, literal meaning of the poem.

        Sometimes a poet is simply trying to communicate a certain feeling and uses various devices to create that feeling or an understanding of it in the reader. Sometimes a poem is mostly form with little meaning; its main effect may be visual or auditory. This is called “abstract poetry.”

Other literary terms:

alliteration (L. ad “to” + littera “letter''): Repetition of the same or similar consonant sound at the beginning of a word, e.g. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

allusion (L. allusio “a playing with”:  A reference to another text or event.

ambiguity (L. ambi “around” + agere “act” ambigere “to wander”: Something suggesting more than one meaning or interpretation.

anonymous (Gk. an “without” + onyma “name”: “Without a name”; indicates that an author of a work is not known.

antithesis (Gr. anti “against” + tithenai “to place”: A direct contrast or opposition.

antonym (Gk. anti “opposite” + onyma “name”: A word opposite in meaning to another.

assonance (L. ad “to” + sonare “sound”; “to sound in answer”: Repetition of vowel sounds, e.g., “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.”

cacophony (Gk. kakos “bad, evil” + phone “voice” adj., cacophonous: “Bad-sounding.”

cliché (F. clicher “to stereotype” from Gk. klitsch, “clump, claylike mass”; “to pattern in clay”: A tired expression that has lost its original power to surprise because of overuse.

connotations (L. com- “together” + notare “to mark”: The implied meanings of a word; its overtones and associations over and above its literal, dictionary meaning.

consonance (L. com “with” + sonare “to sound”: Repetition of inner or end consonant sounds, e.g., the r and s in “broods with warm breast.”

context (L. com- “together”+ texere “to weave”: The verbal or physical surroundings of a text.

denotation (L. de “down” + notare “to mark”: The basic dictionary meaning of a word without any of its associated meanings.

ellipsis (Gk. elleipein “to fall short [of a perfect circle”: Omission, a leaving out of something, which is nevertheless still implied.

enjambement, or run-on lines (Fr. en “in” + jambe “leg,” enjamber “encroach”: In enjambement the grammatical sense runs from one line of poetry to the next without pause or punctuation; opposite of end-stopped line.

euphemism (Gk. eu “good” + phanai “to say”: An attractive substitute for a harsh or unpleasant word or concept; a less direct way of referring to something potentially offensive.

euphony (Gk. eu “good” + phone “voice”; adj., euphonious: “Good-sounding; melodious.”

expletive (L. ex “out” + plere “to fill”: An unnecessary word or phrase used as a filler in speaking or writing (“you know”) or as an aid to metrical regularity in verse (“oh”); an exclamation or oath.

explication (F. from L. ex “out” + plicare “to fold”: An explanation, analysis, or interpretation of a text.

genre (F. from L. genus “kind”: A certain form or style of writing; e.g., poetry, novel, essay.

hyperbole (Gk. hyper “over'”+ ballein “to throw,” i.e., “throw too far; excess”: exaggeration, overstatement.

irony (Gk. eiron “dissembler [“disguise, pretend”] in speech”; also called antiphrasis; Gk. anti “against' + phrazein “to speak”: In general, irony is the perception of a clash between appearance and reality, between seems and is, or between ought and is. Irony falls mainly into three categories: (1) verbal: meaning something contrary to what the words seem to say; this assumes a tacit understanding between speaker and listener as regards the true situation; (2) dramatic: saying or doing something while unaware of its contrast with the whole truth, i.e., verbal irony with the speaker's awareness erased; (3) situational: events turning to the opposite of what is expected or what should be (also called circumstantial irony or the irony of fate, or cosmic irony), as when it rains on the Weather Bureau's annual picnic; the ought is upended by the is. Situational irony is the very essence of both comedy and tragedy.

literal meaning (L. littera “letter”: the precise, plain meaning of a word or phrase in its simplest, original sense, considered apart from its sense as a metaphor or other figure of speech; in translation, a rendering as close as possible to the word-for-word plain sense of the original.

litotes (Gk. litos “smooth, simple, plain”: A kind of irony: the assertion of something by the denial of its opposite: “Not bad.” “This is no small matter.”

lyric (Gk. lyrikos “of a lyre: A poem, brief and discontinuous, emphasizing sound and pictorial imagery rather than narrative or dramatic movement. Lyrical poetry began in ancient Greece in connection with music, as poetry sung for the most part to the accompaniment of a lyre.

metaphor (Gk. meta “over” + pherein “to bear”: The comparison of one thing to another, treating something as if it were something else; a metaphor can be plain, implied [2 : to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement 3 : to contain potentially 4 : to express indirectly ] or dead [a word or phrase (as time is running out) that has lost its metaphoric force through common usage].

metathesis (Gk. meta “over” + tithenai “place”: Interchanging of letters, sounds or syllables within a word, e.g., Old English brid became Modern English bird through metathesis; a modern example would be pretty, purty.

metonymy (Gk. meta “other” + onyma “name”: “Substitute meaning”; an associated idea names the item: "Homer is hard." for "Reading Homer's poems is hard."

mixed metaphor: Changed or contradictory metaphors in the same discourse:, e.g., The population explosion has paved the way for new intellectual growth. Mixed metaphors are considered a sign of poor writing in English.

monologue (Gk. monos “single” + legein “to speak”: A text recited by one person alone.

narrator (L. narrare “to tell”: One who tells a story or narration.

neologism (Gk. neos “young, new” + logos “word”: A newly coined word.

onomatopoeia (Gk onoma “name” + poeia “making”: The use of words formed or sounding like what they signify; examples: mew, clang, swish.

oxymoron (Gk. oxys “sharp, acid”+ moros “foolish” “a pointed stupidity”: An apparently self-contradictory figure of speech, e.g. “a fearful joy,” or “the sonorous silence.”

paradox (Gk. para “side” + "thought", i.e., “other than what you expect”: An apparently untrue or self-contradictory statement or circumstance that proves true upon reflection or when examined in another light.

parody: (Gk. “beside, subsidiary, or mock song”): A parody imitates the serious manner and characteristic features of a particular literary work in order to make fun of those same features. The humorist achieves parody by exaggerating certain traits common to the work, much as a caricaturist creates a humorous depiction of a person by magnifying and calling attention to the person's most noticeable features. The term parody is often used synonymously with the more general term spoof, which makes fun of the general traits of a genre rather than one particular work or author. Often the subject matter of a parody is comically inappropriate, such as using the elaborate, formal diction of an epic to describe something trivial like washing socks or cleaning a dusty attic. (source)

paralepsis: (Gk. para “side” + leipein “to leave”: Mention of a desire to omit something in order to emphasize it. “I don’t want to raise the issue of your criminal record.” Also called apophasis [rhetorical device: the rhetorical device of alluding to something by denying that it will be mentioned, as in "I will not bring up the question of age now that you are forty"].

parallelism (Gk. para “side by side,” allelos “one another”: The comparison of things by placing them side by side; a one-to-one correspondence of form, meaning, or both in a text.

paraphrase (Gk. paraphrazein “to say in other words”: A rendering in other words of the sense of a text or passage.

personification (F. from L. persona “actor's face mask, character”: The technique of treating abstractions, things, or animals as persons; a kind of metaphor; also called anthropomorphism (Gk. anthropos “man” + morphe “form”).

poetic license (L. licere “to be permitted”: The liberty taken by a poet who achieves special effects by ignoring the conventions (e.g., grammar) of prose.

point of view: The vantage point from which a story is told or an account given. "I," or "he/she," etc.

prose (L. prosa, for prorsa (oratio) “direct speech”: Ordinary writing patterned on speech, as distinct from poetry (Gk. poiein “to make”).

prosody (Gk. pros “to” + oide “song, ode”: The analysis and description of meters; metrics; the patterns of accent in a language.

pun (clipped form of It. puntiglio “fine poin”: A figure of speech involving a play on two or more words which sound similar but have different meanings, or refer to different things; usually humorous, but sometimes with serious intent [noun: a humorous play on words (Example: "I do it for the pun of it")] [Examples of puns from http://www.lovetolearnplace.com/Curriculum/Literary/Pun.html#anchor7090

A bicycle can't stand alone because it is two-tired; A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion; Acupuncture is a jab well done; A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart; A plateau is a high form of flattery; Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead to know basis; Every calendar's days are numbered; If you're traveling in Scandinavia and you come to the last Lapp, you must be near the Finnish line; Marathon runners with bad footwear suffer the agony of defeat; Santa's helpers are subordinate Clauses; Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I'll show you A-flat minor; The man who fell into an upholstery machine is fully recovered; The short fortune teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large; Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end; Those who jump off a Paris bridge are in Seine; Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana; What's the definition of a will? (It's a dead giveaway); When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds; When an actress saw her first strands of gray hair, she thought she'd dye; When you've seen one shopping center you've seen a mall; With her marriage she got a new name and a dress.]

redundancy (L. re(d) [an intensifier] + undare “surge, swell” < unda “wave”: “Overflowing”: repetitive, using many more words than necessary; also called pleonasm, tautology.

refrain (F. from Latin refringere “to break off”: A set phrase or chorus recurring throughout a song or poem, usually at the end of a stanza or at some other regular interval.

repetition: (L. re “again”+ petere “to demand, rush at, fall”: Using the same sound, word, etc. more than once; may be used for emphasis or other reasons.

rhetorical question (Gk. rhetor “orator”: A question posed for rhetorical effect, usually with a self-evident answer.

rhyme scheme (ME, F. rime; Gk. schema “a form”: The pattern created by the rhyming words of a poem or stanza. Usually Latin letters are used to designate the same rhyme, e.g. abab cdcd.

satire (L. satira or satura “satire, poetic medley”: Literature that ridicules vices and follies.

scansion (L. scandere “to climb, mount”: A system for analyzing and marking poetical meters and feet.

shaped poem (L. carmen figuratum; also called figure poem): A poem constructed so that its shape on a page presents a picture of its subject.

simile (L. “a likeness”): The comparison of one thing to another using the word, or a word meaning, like.

sound symbolism: A relationship between the sound structure and/or qualities of a word and its referent [a nonarbitrary connection between phonetic features of linguistic items and their meanings, as in the frequent occurrence of close vowels in words denoting smallness, as petite and teeny-weeny].

stanza (vul. L. stantia “standing”: Any grouping of lines in a separate unit in a poem; sometimes called a verse. It resembles paragraphs in prose-writing.

synaesthesia (Gk. syn “together” + aisthesis “sense-impression”: Close association or confusion of sense impressions. The result is essentially a metaphor, transferring qualities of one sense to another, e.g. a “loud color.”

synecdoche (Gk. synekdoche “to receive together”: Reference to something by just a part of it. "New York won the World Series," instead of "The New York Yankees won the World Series." See also: metonymy.

synonym (Gk. syn “together” + onyma “name”: A word that means the same or almost the same as another.

tone (Gk. tonos “stretching, tone”: An author's revealed attitude toward his or her subject or audience: sympathy, longing, amusement, shock, sarcasm, etc.

understatement: An ironic minimizing of a fact in order to emphasize it; meiosis (Gk. meioun “to make smaller”) [for example, “The scratch my client gave to the plaintiff . . .” (when referring to a sizeable wound)].

verse (L. vertere “to turn”): (1) One line of poetry; (2) a stanza; (3) poetry in general; (4) light poetry as opposed to serious poetry.

zeugma (Gk. “yoke”: The technique of using one word to yoke two or more others for ironic or amusing effect, achieved when as least one of the yoked is a misfit, e.g. "He took leave and his hat."

     Much of the above information was taken from: The Harper Handbook to Literature. Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, George Perkins, ed. New York: Harper & Row. 563pp. Paper; also The Norton Sampler. Thomas Cooley, ed. New York & London: W. W. Norton. Paper. Both available at Bookman. Dictionary used: Webster's New World College Dictionary,  3rd ed. 1988. New York: Macmillan. [Bibliographic record from the original URL]

Here is the URL for the original file which I have slightly edited:


This Web Site is linked to the Home page http://ccms.ntu.edu.tw/~karchung/index.html of

Karen Steffen Chung, Ph.D.   ¥v¹ÅµY ¦Ñ®v
National Taiwan University
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
1 Roosevelt Road, Section 4  Taipei, Taiwan 106
Phone: 3366-3215

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